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Viennese Advent

Straw Stars cropped

Straw Christmas Star Ornaments, purchased at the Wien Kriskindlmart in Vienna, Austria in 1978 by the Matteson family. Photo Credit; Sam Matteson

Sitting beside my son of thirty-seven years, I bit into the grilled bratwurst and was instantly transported to Vienna, carried there in the same way that Proust was prompted to recall his youth while tasting a Madeleine and tea in Remembrance of Things Past. The salty and smoky taste of the sausage coupled with the tang of the spiced mustard filled me with a sense of inexplicable joy. To me this is the undeniable flavor of the advent season.

A little less than thirty-seven sevens before, a time when I looked very like my child does today, my family and I had completed our sojourn in Budapest, Hungary. The gray days of late November in Communist-era Hungary added an oppressive air to the already gray cityscape. We were well treated by our hosts, who earned our life-long friendship by their kindness, but we longed to return home to the United States, more and more as the months dragged by. At last, the day arrived for our scheduled departure. The day before I had shipped the majority of our clothing to Munich by train.

I experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating a rigid bureaucratic state that day. Only dollars would be accepted for international shipments I learned after standing in a long queue. The station shipping department could not accept traveler’s checks even if in dollar denominations. That was the job of the bank. At the bank in the station I stood in yet another line to have the checks cashed with a 3% fee, of course. The bank would only dispense the cash in Hungarian Forints, however. “But I need the cash in dollars,” I complained. I was directed to yet another line at the monetary exchange where for a high fee and a highly unfavorable but centrally determined exchange rate, I ultimately obtained the requisite cash to pay for the shipment. After nearly three hours of exasperation this task was accomplished.

I had heard the Hungarian quip that if you see a queue protruding from a shop you should get in the line. There was bound to be something good at the end of it. I also heard that a certain Gabor had been in a line so long that he said to the lady behind him that we was going to go to the ministry of commerce to complain. He left, only to return a few minutes later and reenter the queue with the explanation, “The line at the complaint department is even longer than this line. Mit tudok tenni?” The latter was a phrase meaning “What can I do?” that we heard often both as an offer of help and as a cry of resignation frequently rendered with a shrug. I understood the feeling well and experientially after my time in the shipping department.

 We Had a Plan

On the morning of our departure, we mapped out a plan and then proceeded to execute it. We cleaned the apartment, collected our three children, and packed all the remainder of our belongings into the Simca sedan we had purchased from a friend in Germany a few months before. It was a decent if modest conveyance, even if the floor board was rusting out from too many Bavarian winters and their salt. It would not have passed the TUV the next year, I fear. Since we had no garage, we had left the white car parked out front of the apartment building where it gradually had turned gray, as it acquired a thick coating of Budapest grime. I was concerned once when I came out to the car one morning a few weeks earlier to find a word drawn by a small finger in the dust on the rear window. It read, “PISZKOS.” I asked my host the meaning of this graffiti, to which he replied, “It’s dirty.”

I responded, “It’s okay, Peter, you can tell me what it means, I am a big boy.”

He then laughed and continued, “No! The word is not vulgar. It means, ‘I am dirty,’ you know like ‘Wash me!’ in the US. The school kids on your block were just giving you some advice.” Unfortunately our time was up before I could learn enough Hungarian to have the car washed so we traveled in a piszkos autó.

Our first stop the morning of our departure was to check out with the local police at their neighborhood rendőrőrs (guard house) as required by law for resident aliens such as we. For months we had been aliens all the while I had been a visiting researcher in an exchange between the United States National Science Foundation and the corresponding entity in the Magyar Koztarsasag (Hungarian Republic, what Hungarian call their nation).

Next we motored through the crowded streets of the capital city, dodging honking Ladas and Vilamos electric trams as well as thousands of pedestrians. We pulled up to the Intourist office and returned our keys to the manager and signed more paperwork.We now were officially homeless. We had also expended almost all of our Hungarian currency and dollars, since we were prohibited from “exporting” currency from the country. Thus, we were nearly penniless. We hoped to replenish our cash reserves by cashing a personal check at the AmEx office in the Austrian capital. This was in the days before international banking and the convenience of widely accepted US credit cards in Europe.

One Last Stop

The Ministry of Culture was our final stop before embarking up Bécsi utca (Vienna Road) for the 250 km (150 mile) trip to Vienna and the approximately three hours of driving (plus one hour at the border station at Hesgeshalom). We were, we had been told, to return our “staying permits” and reclaim our US passports at the ministry offices. Thus, as properly documented aliens we could depart by vehicle. When I was able, after several minutes of futile inquiry, to reach an English speaking official, I was told that the request was supposed to have been made two weeks prior to our departure, a fact nobody had informed us of.

I told the assistant that that was unfortunate, indeed, since we had been informed otherwise and that we now had no apartment, no money, and must drive to Vienna before the American Express Office closed so that we could find accommodations for the night. The image of Carolyn sitting with our three children in the echoing hallway is seared into my memory. I gave my long-suffering wife a hasty brief of our situation, then added “If little Peter [our six month old] starts to cry don’t try too hard to pacify him. You don’t have to pinch him or anything, but the more annoying we are, the more motivated they will be to get us on our way.” Anyway even a communist bureaucrat cannot be unmoved by a crying infant, I reasoned. Whether, our desperate measures were the reason or not, we will never know, but the passports eventually materialized hours later and we were on our way, but well after noon. All that lay between us and Vienna were two hundred fifty kilometers and a heavily armed border.

In the days of preparation before funds were exhausted, snacks and juice had been purchased for the trip at the local fruit stand and at the government-run ABC market at the train station. These victuals fortified us as we sped through town past empty shop windows. I noticed an irony: finally a shop was displaying clothes pins for sale that had been unavailable for the nearly four months of our visit. As we headed out the Vienna Road, I also recalled a story my host had told me. István and Gabor were chatting.

“That is a beautiful coat you have on Gabor. Where did you buy it?” István asked.

Bécsi utca, the Vienna Road.”

“I was out that way yesterday. I saw no coats like that for sale.”

“Ah!” said Gabor, “”You went to the wrong end.”

We were on our way to the other end, now. But the clock was ticking. Would we make it by 1700 hours?  That time, 5:00 p.m., was when we though the American Express Office would close. If we arrived too late. what then? My mind reeled at the potentially awful scenarios.

To Be Taking Picture, Forbidden!

Photo TilosAt the border, the cars lined up waiting to be searched, for what I was never certain. The scene was intimidating. Gray flannel clad soldiers carrying machine guns paced before the barbwire-topped fences. Nearly an hour passed as we incrementally crept forward. We have no photographs of Hegeshalom, by all accounts a lovely village. On the highway were posted signs of cameras with a forbidden slash symbol that we had seen before near Soviet military posts. We learned that this Hungarian phrase Fényképezni Tilos means the taking of pictures forbidden! We complied as quickly and courteously as we could with the instruction to completely unpack the car, then repack it when none of our suspected contraband or our hidden defectors were uncovered.

Vienna, At Last

We roared into the Stadt Mitte of Vienna a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. and ran as fast as a couple, two toddlers, and an infant can move to the AmEx office. They were open! Until 1800 hours, thankfully. We cashed a check, learned of where we could book accommodation, and what was happening in the city center that evening. Across the cobble stone square we made reservations for that night at one of the most luxurious hotels of our entire European adventure. All the Mattesons were exhausted by our headlong flight from Eastern Europe and the adults decided that it was foolhardy to ask the children to submit to sitting in a civilized restaurant in our condition.  We strolled the Wien Kriskindlmart (Vienna’s Christ Child Market), a wonderland of glittering lights and Christmas festival foods that runs daily during advent. We marveled at the opulence of objects in the shop windows of Austria’s jeweled city. The lights and the tree shed a soft and welcoming glow across our path. Hot tea and cocoa warmed us. Pretzels, strudel, and cookies satisfied our hunger. Indeed, it was for us Wiener Adventszauber (Viennese Advent Magic). Among the ornate and expensive items we found more humble but equally delightful ones. We selected traditional straw stars that even at this Christmastide adorn our tree. I found my grilled bratwurst and senf (spicy German-style mustard), and it tasted of joy, the joy of freedom, the joy of knowing that we had completed something significant in our lives, and the joy of a faith affirmed that though the way may be hard, by God’s grace we can triumph over hardship. This I feel again every time I taste once more my Viennese Advent. May your advent be filled with joy also.

Vienna Christ Kildl Mart

Vienna Rathaus Kriskindlmart 1978 Photo credit: Sam Matteson

A Grandfather Clock

Clock Quartz

A quartz time piece can tell me precisely how late I am to my next appointment. Photo Credit: http://www.clockworks.com

There hangs a clock on my kitchen wall that ticks each second off in crystalline precision. It is not the pendulous kind of clock that fascinated me when I was a child.   It is a thoroughly modern timepiece. Where once the distinguished name of a chronometer’s creator, a proud craftsman, was proclaimed, the name of him who had conceived and executed a device of great intricacy with rasp and skill, with turnings and dexterity, with jewel bearings and ingenuity, with ratchet and pawl, now an anonymous “quartz” is imprinted.

Nevertheless, I can now have time dispensed to me with the accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Boulder, Colorado, where unsuspecting Cesium atoms oscillate at their native frequency of over 9 trillion ticks per second while voyeur technologists watch and listen intently and sound a radio gong at the passing of each second. Now I can know with astonishing precision how late I am to an appointment or how little time I have left to do what I must and would do. But I do not better know how to spend my time now than before.

Only So Many Heatbeats

Graydon Larrabee, a colleague of my Texas Instruments days, dismissed all time invested in exercise as folly, thus: “You have only so many heart beats, I understand. You waste yours grunting and sweating; I will spend mine more pleasurably, here, beside the pool, drinking Margaritas and watching the sunset.” An interesting idea. But if by raising your heart rate to 120 for thirty minutes per day for five days of every week, you could lower your resting heart rate by five beats per minute for the remainder of your life, you would reduce the overall number of cardiac contractions by the equivalent of about five years over a normal life span. So exercise might extend your life by a half decade, if life were as simple as arithmetic. I am the beneficiary of a youth of active exertion so that my resting heart rate is often as low as 45 pulses per minute. Cardiologists call this condition “Bradycardia,” and sometimes show concern. Nevertheless, at that rate I should live to the age of 101. By this logic I reckon that if I can get my heart to stop all together I should expect to live forever.

Indeed, if I were to live to see eighty Februaries I should have expended about two and a half billion seconds, and my heart would have contracted just about as many times. And if I had taken a step with each heat beat, then my journey would be nearly a million miles, two round trips to the moon, or 38 times around the world. Such a trip should take us far from where we began. But as we circumperambulate the globe we may end very near to where we began. It all depends on where and when we stop and how we wander, like laps around a cinder track.

I half resent and half revel in those ticking clicks that are the sounds of seconds evaporating. It is inevitable that time be dispensed in such small and manageable doses. The ocean of time is so immense that we would drown is centuries and millennia if it were not dispensed to us in mouthfuls of seconds. Still seconds often seem to come so fast we invariably spill many of them, never to be recovered. Time wasted is time we will never taste again.

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown's office metering out them minutes of boredom waiting as his patience. Photo Credit: www.riotgamesmerch.com

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown’s office metering out the minutes of boredom waiting as his patient. Photo Credit: riotgamesmerch.com

My memory is clogged with clocks; the grandfather clock in Dr. Brown’s office. His clock ticked and ticked and ticked interminably, and we waited impatiently an eternity to receive shots or to endure his probing of my sore throat or for an examination of a perennial ear infection. Ma and Pa Moates, too, had a clock, a cuckoo clock that ticked frenetically and, on the hour, hoarsely crowed its wooden heart out. Then there was the mantle clock of my Mother’s sister, Ruth, whom we all called “Aunt Sister,” a name that now seems a strangely ambivalent appellation for a confusing relationship, but in customary use seemed so natural and easy to pronounce. In the culture of my home and family “Aunt Sister,” “Uncle Doc,” and “Miss Mary” were the gentle way of speaking that raised no eyebrows, though we had no “Uncle Bubba” until I married into the Rhodes’ family of Texas. But I digress. There were clocks everywhere ticking, ticking then.

Einstein was right: time is relative. But our sense of time obeys different laws than the clocks or the mechanics he worked out. Time drags its feet when we would hurry toward an event, leaving long parallel grooves on the ground. And time rushes ahead of us as we drawback from the future, it dragging us forward inexorably. In the South we often stop the clock’s pendulum all together when someone dies, just as we cover the mirrors. The clock has stopped for our loved ones to be sure. But perhaps it is good for us to take time out to grieve and to ponder life. Then we return to the frenetic pace of business as usual.

The variability of internal time may explain why I have always had trouble with rhythm. I find it impossible to keep a steady beat. I theorize and excuse my lack of “groove” as a congenital inability to properly subdivide time because of my bradycardia. “I don’t have a rhythm bone,” I insist. My musician son has a different explanation: “Dad, you’re too white, that’s all!”

Sometimes this temporal defect has been simply an embarrassment, but occasionally it has been a sad disability that caused me to shake my head and cluck at myself. I recall the Sergeant’s remark when I was in the Marine Corps, “Matheson (intentionally and precisely mispronouncing my name with a gratuitous “h”) would make an excellent guide if only he could march. He can’t keep a steady cadence.” Many times I have mocked myself by singing in a halting beat, “I’ve got…rhythm….I got music. I got my gal. How could ask for anything more?”

Still Running

I have always been racing the clock, it seems, challenged to keep up. Often this has been true figuratively, but in my teenage years it was most literal. I was a runner. My lanky legs made me ill-suited to short sprints. My lack of long-term stamina precluded any prowess at distance. But my stupidity made me a candidate for the middle distance. The willingness to subject oneself to agony is a prerequisite for such races. The taste for masochism is a distinct asset for the middle distance racer.   The half-mile, the 880 yard run, is the plebian cousin of the more cosmopolitan 800-meter “dash” of international competition. The 800 is a race devised by a sadist. I can hear him exclaiming at the moment of inspiration, rubbing his hands together, “I know! Let’s have these poor chaps run their hearts out for a quarter of a mile, but instead of letting them break the tape then, let’s have them slough out a second lap around the track. What bully fun!”

I always approached the race with anxiety and dread. I was like a skittish dog approaching its master, the one who always cuffed his ears in greeting, making him howl. “Butterflies” they delicately call the sensation of the anticipation of an unwelcome, painful event. My reaction felt more like hornets ominously swarming in my abdomen; at the next moment they may decide to sting in a deadly attack. Perhaps the psychological experience was necessary to prepare me physiologically for the next two minutes of exertion. I could feel the adrenaline pouring into my blood stream. In “fight or flight,” like a deer fleeing the hunter, I started at the sound of “Runners to your mark! . . . Ready!” then an eternal pause, and at last the starter’s pistol retort. It is no accident, I believe, that such races begin with the runners fleeing from the sound of a shot.

It most often begins well enough, in a civilized fashion. Each runner dashes straight down his assigned lane for the first fifty yards, vying for a slight advantage by the time he reaches the curve, enough advantage to justify his cutting off his nearest challenger at the turn when we all break to the inside. The clock ticks steadily then. Paces come four or five to the second and the grass at the side of the track blurs by. The other runners, arms pumping, are close; you can hear them breathing the first deep breaths they have taken since the start; and at the break they jostle each other. Once a runner only a half step ahead of me at the curve cut in and spiked the muscle above my right knee. A thin red stripe grew down my leg and bathed my black track shoes. I never got the rust color out of the laces although I washed them repeatedly. But Neet’s Foot oil restored the leather of my spiked shoes and kept then supple for years after I had hung them up for good.

The aptly named backstretch is coming, this is the place where we stretch our stride and let our feet eat up the yards. If someone else leads I mustn’t let them get out of reach; if I lead I must carefully measure my expenditure of heart beats, just enough to stay ahead, but not too many to squander myself before the finish. But I have only fifteen seconds more to strategize and to adjust before the first quarter mile is ending.   I see the white line signaling the mid-way point of the race and I hear my coach yelling “49, 50, 51, 52….” He is watching his stopwatch and calling out the seconds as they tick off. His voice is growing louder as I approach: “56, 57, 58, 59, 60…a bell rings as we begin the last lap. “Pretty fast pace,” I note silently as I make the turn. Then the seconds begin to sag like a Salvador Dali painting, hanging limp and long as I am lost in my own disoriented world as the second lap repeats the first. When will this race ever end? I am trapped in the commitment to the people in the stands, to my coach, to myself to run on and finish. Where are the other runners? I can hear them, I think. Are they struggling as am I?   When will they make their final move? When should I make my final kick?

Start Your Kick!

Here it comes, up ahead, the curve. “Now! Start your kick, Sam.” I lean forward slightly and push hard against the ground to spring forward. I accelerate and lean into the curve. It feels good, for a few seconds. Then as I come around the final curve, it hits me. As if a bear had suddenly jumped onto my back, I instantly gain three hundred pounds. The clock speeds up while my motion slows to a viscous pace. I strain to keep up with the world but it is receding. The crowd is roaring as the runners fan out across the lanes for the final eighty yards, but their voices are muted, far away. The only sounds I hear are the sounds of my labored breathing coming in a jagged three-four waltz rhythm, inhale for two beats; exhale explosively for one count. And my heart is beating in my ears like a clock, loud and insistent. I hear the footsteps of my rival, too, who is pulling up to my right. They sound somehow ominous. I dig deeper to run faster. The tape is across the track, and I focus on crossing it in just a few more ticks of the clock, a few more steps, a few more heart beats. The world turns red and my vision tunnels to a small circle centered on the finish. I fling up my arms and lunge across the line. “Did I finish first, second, last? No matter. I finished. What was my time? Good. I beat my personal best.”

The Finish

One of my high school team mates (Alvin Seale, left) makes his final kick to win the relay race in 1965. I still feel as if I am running, myself. Photo Credit: Sam Matteson

I marvel at what I once did not think possible: that one entity can be two contradictory things at once. Time runs simultaneously fast and slow. Time both sprints and ambles. My last race was only yesterday. It was fifty years ago. No, I am still running and wondering about the finish. I wonder if I will have enough to make it in good time. I hope God is running with me and with be there to catch me at the tape. It is taking all the strength that I can muster.

I am ambivalent about ticking clocks. At once they remind me of how inexorably the seconds evaporate, but at the same time, their tiny voices are speaking a reassuring rhythm of faithfulness.

December Variations

Lisa Noelle-3 (left) and Carrie Susan-4 (right) enjoy a ride at Lions’ Park Waco, Texas as Christmas approaches. You can almost hear the carols ringing in the background. (Photo credit Sam Matteson 1976)

Do you hear that? . . . There! In the background. I hear it so often—on every street corner, in the mall, spilling from churches and from offices—that I hum along without even thinking about it. It’s the sound of December, the music heralding the approach of Christmas, like the distant sound of the brass band in the Thanksgiving parade. More than any other season, December has its own joyous accompaniment.

Many things I anticipate with pleasure as December approaches, but the music—Ah! the music—cheers me most. Carols, impatient as children, begin in the last weeks of November like the overture before the real symphony. We know that it’s really December when the winter middle school band concerts happen all over town. The presentation must always include a rendition of Jingle Bells performed by the gaggle of Christmas geese, the seventh grade clarinet players, who have studied the wicked reed for only twelve weeks. Their merry approximation of the tune fills the gym and makes us smile (or grimace):

“Honk, honk, honk!
Honk, honk, honk!
Squawk, honk, squeak, honk, squawk!”

Sweet Carols in Memory

"Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views" by Godofbiscuits - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

“Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views” by Godofbiscuits – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons – https://commons. wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg#/media/File:Handbell-Side-and-Bottom-Views.jpg

But not all the sounds of the holidays are strident. Hark how the bells, the sweet silver hand bells, resound in my heart! In a long ago December bell concert my wife (eight months pregnant and great with our first child) worried that she would be delivered on stage, red robed and white gloved even as she was. Baby Carrie was moved as well—in utero—by the stirring melody and responded with her own lively dance.

I, too, have loved music from childhood. I can still recall singing in the “cherub choir” on Christmas Eve. The candle light, the stained glass of “big church,” the smiling faces of the people are colored with crayons in my memory. What I most recall, though, is my fascination with the starched surplice and red bow that hung beneath my chin as if I were a Christmas present. The white fabric made a delightful crackle as I flapped my arms like angel wings. The director was not amused, however.

Perhaps it was then that I began to be persuaded that the human voice can be the most glorious instrument in all of the world. As I grew older I looked forward to December, when I again could be transported by making music myself. And what more majestic piece in which to be immersed than Handel’s Messiah? And so it came to pass that in those days my wife and I joined the choir. Every Wednesday evening after work, from Thanksgiving to Christmas week, we practiced the trills and runs of the grand baroque oratorio, while our sweet toddlers, Carrie, and her younger sister Lisa Noelle played and colored Xeroxed line drawings of the manger and wise men under the watchful eyes of “Granny” Slade.

Afterward, homeward bound to baths, story books, and bed the girls were parceled to each parent for some quality one-on-one time. So it was that Lisa Noelle rode with Daddy in the old blue Volkswagen. After placing my almost three-year-old— clad in corduroy overalls and lady-bug-and-flower sneakers—into her seat, I climbed in and started the car. I could not restrain the music that only minutes before had swelled from a giant choir. A rousing chorus of the oratorio spilled from my mouth:

“And He shall purify.
And He shall puri-fi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-y the sons of Levi.”
Lisa looked puzzled as she studied my face. Then she held up her tiny hand as if to say “Stop!” Her brow wrinkled and she admonished me in a tone that I had never heard before.

“Daddy! Your mouth is scribbling!”

I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. It is difficult to drive when you are doubled over in laugher. Decades later, I cannot hear the strains of Handel’s masterpiece without thinking of my little one. I smile at the memory and at the irony of the woman she has become—a wife, a mother, a school teacher and a classically trained soprano who knows well the scribbles and curlicues of bel canto.

Joyfully Seeking the Messiah

So I soak it all in, all the music of December. I note the Messiah performances at the Schermerhorn and at area churches. I am disappointed to find that the Messiah Sing-Along, (note: BYOS, that is, bring your own score) is sold out already despite my preparation. I absorb all the music I can in December because it must last me the rest of the year. For come Boxing Day, the carols will be silenced, put away with the tinsel and the tree. But I for one will still be singing, well outside the lines, joyfully scribbling in my heart:

“Unto us a child is born.
Unto us a son is given . . . .
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah, indeed!

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300x168.jpg

The Messiah is an essential part of my Christmas. Photo credit: miamionthecheap.com/lotc-cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/handel-messiah-300×168.jpg

Church Towers

In Europe one cannot avoid the presence of ancient church houses. Their towers dominate the skyline while the influence of the congregations who built them has waned. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978.

I saw much of the public kind of religion growing up. I saw it put on like Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but it did not always fit well like the too tight dress shoes you out grew not long ago. I saw. I was not blind. I could tell that it was a show that made no difference most of the time. But many of us for “Momma’s sake” or “old time’s sake” or just for “Pete’s sake” went through the motions. I wondered if some folk were touchy about religion because the one they had was not really theirs. They must have borrowed it, for even bringing up the subject made them feel a sham, and a good thump from a question was enough to produce an echoing hallow “thud” from the empty shell of their faith.

Even I went dutifully to church despite such considerations. In defense I cultivated strategies to endure the deadening weight of stultifying music inexpertly rendered with pretension and immodest but undeserved pride; I sat through endless pompous orations delivered with stentorian rhetoric that seemed so interminable, irrelevant and beside the point of my life. I found that I could entertain myself with mental games that only occasionally were disruptive. For example if I stared at the podium, spot lit with a single bright light, I could burn into my retinas the image of the scene so that I could erase the figure of the sweating evangelist and he would disappear. I could still hear his voice however.   I counted the holes in the tiles and did mental arithmetic calculating the average number of holes per tile and per square foot. As much as I could I often went elsewhere in my mind.

Despite the boredom I complied with my parents command to get ready every Sunday morning without audible protest partly because of the guilt I felt whenever I was apostate and partly because of the deep-seated hope that flickered in my breast that perhaps I would at last meet God in the church and that He would begin to answer some of my most troubling questions. But I was taught to look with suspicion on novelty in matters religious; questions raised by science and “Higher Criticism” were dismissed by most as new fangled and suspect. The “old time religion” we sang about that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” had to be “good enough for me.” Unfortunately and paradoxically, the religion of my fathers I learned was a twentieth century contrivance, and I suspected that the novelty of the first century Jesus-way would have shocked the congregants and parishioners of my church with its alien form and Middle Eastern subtlety.

All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds

Now don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of things that I liked about the church, but they mainly had to do with the people, imperfect as they were. We were a family, or a community at the very least. I felt loved and cared for by people who did not have to give a care about me, but did nevertheless. This community of a few hundred souls was nowhere more evident than when we had “All day singing and dinner on the grounds.” The church potluck was something I looked forward to with the pleasure of a healthy adolescent appetite. Of course there was an etiquette and morality that was not spoken of in public nor declared explicitly but that you learned at home. I can still hear my mother’s admonition: “Never take as much as you want. If there is only a little left in the pot take no more than half. Remember the people in line behind you. Don’t embarrass your momma or your God. You don’t want to make God or me blush, now do you? Instead make them both proud of you.” I perversely dreamed of an all day dinner (and singing on the grounds) when we could have as much as we wanted. When I heard stories about heaven this metaphor always leapt to mind. I wondered about what was the church, at the first. I hoped it was like what I dreamed of.

The study of the origin of words that we daily use tells us much about how humans have used (and misused) them over the ages and what we are unwittingly saying when we speak them. The etymology of the word “church” in English versus the New Testament word “ekklesia” (the called out ones) that it translates is informative in this regard. Scholars of language tell us that “church” originates in the non-Biblical Greek word “kyriakon” (literally “of the Lord”) perhaps also a contracted form of “kyriake oikon” (Lord’s House). Over the centuries the word slipped into Gothic dialects as kirche that, in turn, migrated to “church” in English. How different is the current meaning and connotation of this word from the original meaning it translates! It seems that “church people” have mistaken the church house for the “called out ones” that assemble there, substituting architecture for biology. The Apostle Paul likens the ekklesia to the body and bride of Christ, a living entity, not a brick and mortar edifice.

Over the decades of my life, as I wandered from place to place, I came to understand more of this reality. I saw empty church houses throughout the world: beautiful buildings dedicated to God but that had no life within them any more. I have also observed ecclesiastical institutions that still functioned but were as empty of real vitality as a deserted kirk on the moor. Gratefully, I have known exceptions.

When we arrived in Pasadena for our sojourn in a postdoctoral assignment we, as was our custom, visited the local church house on Sunday early in our stay. When we walked into the meeting room we were immediately embraced by the group that included (to our surprise and delight) friends that we had known years before and thousands of miles away. The seminarians in the small gathering of the Sunday School, who were as transient as we, showed us that we must “love in a hurry.” Strangers no longer, we went deep and were loved well even to this day.

A Sojourn in the Desert

Our assignment called for a time abroad in Germany and Hungary. Despite our best intentions, we were unsuccessful at connecting with a local congregation in the six months we were abroad. Surrounded by kind but secular friends and coworkers, we were nevertheless “on our own” spiritually. It was a sojourn in the desert, dry and difficult. We felt the presence of God as we traveled but we missed the encouragement and fellowship that we had known in Pasadena. Great was the rejoicing when we returned. I resolved never again to live in isolation.

Thus, as we have relocated the several times in our itinerant life, we have sought out where God would have us graft into His body, the church. There were occasions of heartache, for sure, on this journey when human imperfections caused hurt in the body. There were times of desperation that drove us to our knees, as when our long-time faith family came close to shuttering the church house doors. But from our humbled position God amazed us and filled our hearts with joy as we realized that it was not “our” church but His. Yes, it was a Lazarus moment when the congregation roared back to life as satellite a “campus” of a larger, healthier body. Ultimately, the resurrected congregation became again a separate and independent entity, unique in its context and membership. It was then that I re-learned that a real church was not a social club but a living, breathing collection of Christ-following but not yet-perfected-saints committed to Christ and one another.

It was there I was known most intimately for the first time outside of my family and—wonder of wonders—loved anyway by my brothers and sisters in Christ, a terrestrial example of heavenly grace. When we were led at my retirement to leave the college town to be nearer our children, we grieved our separation from the dear saints we had come to love. In our annual migrations to and from our summer retirement home in the Colorado mountains, the pull of this faith family is irresistible. We inevitably find reason to deviate a few hundred miles from a direct route just to worship again with our sibs there, for it was there we learned that church means “doing life together,” complete with mutual accountability and encouragement. You cannot long mutually care deeply about others and appreciate them without it becoming habitual and natural.

Church Mosque Pecs

 

The church/Mosque in Pecs, Hungary that was constructed as the Pasha Gazi Kasim Mosque during the century-long Turkish occupation, demolishing the original Gothic church to obtain stones to build the mosque. Then in the 19th century, the building was rededicated for use as a church. In the foreground the Matteson girls pose in the late fall of 1978. Photo credit: Sam Matteson

 

 

 

 

So now that we have moved in retirement to two new locales, we as genuine “snowbirds” we have identified two congregations where we can do life. As we alternate seasonally between the two ranges, the Rockies and the Cumberland Plateau, we have endeavored in each venue to invest in the lives of our Jesus-sibs and be shepherded and nurtured in return. Thus, we hope that in a real sense we can continue to partake of an appetizer of the banquet that awaits the church, the All-day-singing and dinner-on-the-grounds.

The Old Time Religion

Church house

Religion is a touchy subject. No doubt about that. People would always get excited whenever the topic of religious faith came up when I was a child; this was so even if everybody had at least one favorite, whether they admitted it or not, be it one of the “Bible Belt” orthodoxies, some version of a thoughtful or an unconscious inherited agnosticism or even an absent-minded hedonism. Religion and politics—I was taught early in my youth—are not fit for polite dinner conversation, although why I do not remember ever being told. They cause indigestion, I suppose. This state of affairs seemed particularly strange to me since, down South, religion is the basis of the third standard question with which we skewer our victims in the inquisition of new acquaintance. After “Where y’all from?” and “Who’s your folks?” the final poser comes: “What’s you church?”

Like a Nose Out of Joint

I have seen people sometimes get huffy when you bring up religion as if you had asked whether they were wearing polka dot boxers, or long johns, or no underwear at all. “None of your d*** business” they seemed to say, even if they were too polite to voice the words. I have wondered over the years what it was that riled folks so when the subject turned to the spiritual, especially since I suspected almost everybody had an opinion on the matter of God and the state of his immortal soul just like almost everybody has a nose. And like a nose, it was sometimes put out of joint by the slightest affront or the mildest provocation.  Of course, I am aware that wars have been fought for centuries over religion, and I have seen some fights for myself that were only slightly less bloody than the War of the Roses. “I have a problem with organized religion,” I have occasionally heard, which always prompted me to think “Would you find disorganized religion more palatable? I think that can be arranged.” Perhaps, I concluded at last, the off-putting comes from what we consciously or inadvertently communicate: an offensive sense of our “rightness” and of our “righteousness” and consequently a tacit indictment of the others’ implied waywardness and wicked apostasy, if not their blatant and obstinate stupidity.

Certainty Has Eluded Me

Yet, this sense of certainty always eluded me. Indeed, the more I learned and the more powerfully I felt the allure of my own convictions, the more I realized what one risks in such matters. Maybe that is why many of my friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers, grow uncomfortable when the subject raises itself. When you follow a path that tracks the edge of an abyss only dimly lit by an uncertain moonlight you might be forgiven a bit of skittishness. Perhaps a little compassion would prompt us think twice before lambasting a brother with a liturgy that seems a little strange at first.

I, too, am conflicted by thoughts of religion. On one hand, I think that we are all so terribly alike in our hunger for meaning and significance; we want to matter and to be valued. We are all like Monte, the homeless cyclist who accosted me one day, “Pardon me, Sir. Could you spare some change? I’m powerful hungry.”  We are all hungry for something. I am sure of that.

My hunger was no less real than that of my brother on the road, only mine was a hunger of the spirit not of the belly. I concluded that we are all alike: hungry homeless ones. Yet we are also remarkably unique in our particular journey. “But does it really matter?” I asked myself. I became convinced that the journey of the spirit is, indeed, important and that it does make a profound difference what we choose to guide our life, for we risk the squandering the only true treasure we have, our one precious life, if we misapprehend the way of things. So I came to appreciate the dispatches of the soul that stout-hearted explorers sent back from the frontier.

A Lesson from a Lepidoptera

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Moth-Photos.jpg

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/

Among the varieties of religious expressions I discerned two categories: the outer, public religion of the club and social institution and the inner, when-nobody-is-watching kind of spirituality. I contend that one cannot always know what is happening on the inside by appearances. One summer evening this truth was demonstrated to me when as a young teenager I arrived at the church house to attend the vespers worship. I was loitering with my friends in the vestibule laughing and joking when an itinerant moth that had been aimlessly circling the overhead light suddenly decided to explore the recesses of my ear. One wag later quipped that the moth must have seen the glare shining through my (hollow) head and flew toward the glow. Whatever the reason, I was instantly knocked off my feet. I was unconcerned about those around me, about what I had held in my hands that I had sent flying. All of my attention was totally captivated by the sensation of the creature wriggling in my head. I was horrified. My ear itched, hurt, and tickled at the same time. I pounded on my head. It was futile. Each motion only drove the frantic and benighted insect deeper into the darkness. When it reached my ear drum it began a deafening tarantula dance with it wings and six tiny legs.

The dignified adults who glanced toward the back of the sanctuary frowned. What was the commotion? “Sammy’s slain in the spirit!” They might have thought.   Then they might have cautioned, “Beware the evil influence of the charismatic.” I, however, was not in the least interested in theological proprieties at that moment. My conniption came not from religious ecstasy but rather arose from an entomological infestation. I flung myself down on a pew writhing in pain. Soon my father was looking down at me. “What’s the matter son?”

“I’ve got a moth in my ear.” He stifled a chuckled but got to work to try to help. He took me home immediately. First he attempted to kill the bug with peroxide. The panic-stricken Lepidopteran only fluttered against its constraints more vigorously in the oxygenated foam of the solution. Then, after some thought, my mechanic of a father found some baby oil that he used with better results. Then with a pair of eye-brow tweezers and an hour and a half of labor his big hands crushed the hapless bug and gently exorcized pieces of the moth-spirit. It was slain but not in the Spirit. The experience made me forever afterward anxious to be in the vicinity of circling moths. My ears will begin to itch, and I scratch or at least cover them without thinking. Like the spectacle of my moth-possession, however, few knew what else was really going on inside me; they were without power to read my heart from my face. They could not see the storms and the conflict raging inside. I wondered if there were others like me, outwardly smiling but inwardly raging, bluffing their way along as I, but just as afraid to admit their weakness to anyone.

Two Varieties of Religiosity

Thus, I saw that there were really at least two kinds of religions: the Sabbath morning dress up big church one, and the one I knew on the creek bank. For me the former was a desiccated prune salad of which old people routinely partook because it “kept them regular,” one that was recommended because it was good for your constitution even if it were entirely unpalatable. The latter, however, I discovered to be an exciting adventure like the taste of wild Scuppernongs hanging from a limb in the woods, unimaginably sweet when sucked warm with the still living juice in them, the skin tart, the seeds bitter, the whole bronze or green but never dull, dead, or lifeless.

As I have muddled through the years since, I have sought and found—more often than less—the living kind of faith. I now rarely say that I am a “religious person,” since the declaration smacks of the former rather than the latter persuasion. Instead, I now strive to self-identify as a “Christ-follower.” This is closer to the “Way” described in the New Testament than the secular expectation of “church people.” I am also persuaded that this is closer to the “old time religion” than conventional wisdom would allow.

A recent Pew survey suggests that the American people may be less “religious” than in times past. As I think on that statement, I wonder if it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might mean that we are just more honest about what we truly believe than heretofore. It just might also mean that we are tired of prunes. As an alternative, my experience compels me to ask, “Have you tried fruit fresh-plucked from the vine? I recommend it.”

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What's-in-Season_01(1).jpg

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What’s-in-Season_01(1).jpg

[My next post “All-day-dinner and Singing-on-the-Grounds” with examine the other side of the coin—our desperate need for community in a living faith]

The Paisley Shirt

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth Grade South Brookley School

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth grade South Brookley School ca. 1957

Childhood is an innocent space where we become who we are. I was not a beautiful child, but, on the other hand, I was not a cruel child, as children sometimes can be. I was not a difficult child in elementary school, either. At least that’s the way I remember it. I was eager, earnest and—some might call it—“experimental.” I tried out ideas, and at the beginning, I did not think through to the end what were the implications of my impulses and inspirations. But that’s the nature of a child who is innocent of consequence.

To be sure, there were times when I sat in Mrs. Becton’s office and then waited on the broad wooden steps after school for my mother to pick me up. Whatever her actual size, “Mizrez Becton” will always seem a figure six feet tall, dressed in a black suit with white lace trim, wearing heavy-heeled, high-heeled dress shoes that sounded on the pine board floors of South Brookley Elementary School the cadence of authority. In the evening, I still imagine, the black janitress would spread rose-colored cedar sawdust on the floor—as I often saw her do after school—to sweep up the footfalls of the Principal and teachers and the thousand stumbling scuffs of children and, too, the hundreds of ideas lying there unused that were tossed about but failed, this time, to stick. Mrs. Becton was in charge. Her gait and demeanor said so to me. She was the Principal teacher, but her kind eyes were not hidden behind her tortoise shell glasses.

The Great Bathroom Experiment

Grade school is a place to begin to find out where you fit, jostling against girls and boys your own age. The jostling, for me, did not stop even in the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they called it “bathroom” since it contained no fixture anything like a bath except an immense urinal trough. It was the fourth grade when I discovered one of the wonderful properties of the equipment with which God had blessed Adam, a urinary tract that terminates in a marvelously directional nozzle. To my boyish delight, I could urinate well up the tiled wall behind the ceramic trench. When I revealed this discovery to some admiring comrades, they responded enthusiastically to my demonstration with their own attempts. Thus, began a short-lived tournament. Who could hit the highest point? That was the goal. Unfortunately, our glee was apparently too boisterous. I heard a “clump, clump, clump,” that I recognized all too well. Surely a lady would not come into the boy’s bathroom!

I was wrong. My explanation of our “experiment” did not appear to persuade the lady in the black dress. Whether she was amused or not, I cannot tell. Although my mother could not refrain her laugh, although she tried to hide it behind her hand, when she told me that she had had a telephone call from Mrs. Becton. My embarrassment was sufficient punishment, I think; I recall no other consequence except a deep redness in my face that returns even now when the competition comes to mind.

But I was truly not a mischievous child. Whenever I was accused of transgressing the bounds of propriety, I had an explanation that seemed sound and reasonable to me. Once I was called an exhibitionist. But, honestly, I was falsely accused. It was a conspiracy of events and my Mother’s infatuation with technology and fashion. Alabama, Mobile in particular, was hot in the spring—and unbearably humid in that un-air conditioned age. On a particular day I was dressed in a nylon paisley short-sleeved shirt and an old man’s cotton undershirt.

The Hateful Nylon

The air in the classroom hung hot and damp like still wet, poorly wrung clothes on a line. No breeze stirred in the classroom, even though all the sash windows were open to their full height. The nylon shirt clung to my skin. Nylon was the new “wonder” fabric; light and sleek like silk but affordable to everyone. I looked at the paisleys swimming randomly in blue over my stomach. I loathed paisleys. The forms that swarmed over me and seemed to devour my body were neither distinctly identifiable as animal or vegetable but were, instead, the creation of some deranged imagination designed to offend the masculine sensibilities of little boys who were forced to wear them by their mothers “without another word, young man.”

It was hot. I was hot. Somehow, the paisleys amplified the stiflingly humid warmth. Then the teacher left the room for an errand. I had an inspiration! Too many layers of clothing were the reason why I was dying of heat prostration. I did not hesitate. I unbuttoned by shirt and stripped it off. I began to remove my old man cotton undershirt, wet with sweat. I intended to redress with only the hated paisley shirt when my plans were thwarted. Just as the cotton shirt came up over my head, I saw through the weave, my teacher reappear.

“Sammy Gene Matt’son! What are you doing?”

“Just, trying to get cooler, Ma’am.”

“You go directly to the bathroom and put back on your clothes. Then, report to Mrs. Becton’s office.”

I have always hated paisleys.

The Secret Code of Reading

I came to reading late. It was second grade before I made sense of the black blocks they stacked in meaningless clumps and irregular rows like some inky vegetable crop that I did not like. I did not care for Dick and Jane, either, who seemed to want to do little more than run and see their dog, Spot. I was interested in National Geographic.   I “read” the pictures of far-off places and exotic adventures: a toddler sitting in a footprint; a monkey swinging from a branch; a raft floating on the ocean.

I was in the “second circle.” When I was forced to read aloud, I stammered and stuttered with fright and mortification at my ignorance. I did the best I could, but it was a paisley shirt to me. Mrs. Vera Pounds, however, would not let me be satisfied. I thought that she stopped teaching and began mettling when she called my mother. They decided that there would be no more National Geographic until I had learned to “read it proper.”

Presented with this ultimatum, I chose to make the most of it. To my surprise, I ultimately did break the code of the black blocks. I learned, too, that there was a person standing behind the picture telling his story in lacy black print that surrounded the photographs. The child was sitting in the fossilized foot print of a giant meat-eater in the track way in the Pulaski River in Texas; the monkey was one of a newly discovered species in Madagascar; the raft was the Kon Tiki and carried adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who proved by his voyage that Polynesia could have been peopled by ancient travelers from Ecuador.

I look at the school photograph of a child. “South Brookley, 1957” it reads. I am dressed in a polka dot knit shirt and a smile, my lips closed, my hair combed to the side. This is the same me that looks back in the mirror in a suit and tie, still smiling a closed lip smile, but with thinning hair combed straight back, now. I outgrew my paisley nylon shirt. Everyone does. We put off childish things. We become who we are. I look in the mirror and I see. I am wearing a paisley tie.

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: www.bows-n-ties.com

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: http://www.bows-n-ties.com

A Great Name

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:

Villamos (Electric Tram) in Budapest. Photo Credit:
“Budapest tram 3” by Siemar – originally posted to Flickr as El 2. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The motor coach cruised the French countryside through fields of dazzling yellow canola. I and about thirty other conferees from an internationals scientific conference were enjoying an excursion to the CRNS laboratory in Saclay. The young graduate student in the window seat turned to me and glanced at my name tag. His eyes widened slightly and he exclaimed, “Are you the Matteson?”

I laughed but inwardly was pleased at the recognition. In the relatively small community of scientists in my field of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, I was indeed the only “Matteson.” I, perhaps like many who strive to become distinguished in their disciplines, secretly craved recognition and the acquisition of a great name. I was happy to exult for a few moments in the wan glow of a qualified superlative: I was in fact, the Matteson who had dripped an arcane fact-drop into the vast ocean of knowledge. I was pleased that the ripples of that discovery had caught his attention. But all I had done was uncover a scientific detail that would take an hour to explain to a layman and who would, at last, be left scratching his head in puzzlement at its dubious significance.

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Canola fields, France. Photo credit: Scott Wenzel

Over the years I had struggled with the desire to make something of myself which in the sciences consists of being the first to discover a phenomenon or to explain accurately a physical process. I had been trained well by my scientific mentor in my graduate student days to design and construct critical experiments. Dr. Powers had insisted that I become my most severe critic so that my work alone could answer any subsequent reviewer or reader. If anyone would read my published work, they could trust that the results were diligently obtained and the conclusions were trustworthy.

A Hungarian Sojourn

I recalled as we passed through the brilliant yellow kilometers how that years earlier for a few weeks in the summer and early autumn of 1978, I and my immediate colleagues were the sole trustees of the knowledge of the temperature dependence of a process called “ion mixing,” because we had completed a difficult but exciting experiment. I had been dispatched to Budapest by my post-doctoral mentors both to present the results at the biennial international conference and to remain in Hungary along with my family, consisting of a wife and three children, aged six, five, and four months.

After a few weeks of acculturation in Germany at the Max Planck Institut with my European collaborator and host, we had relocated to the east and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Buda the weekend before the conference. I stepped onto the Villamos, the electric tram, that ran to the city center. I was ready, clad in a dark suit and tie, my beard neatly trimmed but still full, my poster and the draft of my paper tucked securely in my brief case in my lap. As the tram neared the stop for the Institute for Science and Culture where the conference would be held, I pulled the cord that signaled my stop.

The dull yellow Villamos halted, the doors opened with a whoosh and I stepped down to the pavement, as inconspicuously as I could. I wanted to be mistaken for a Magyar, a Hungarian or at least a Német, a German from Munich, perhaps on holiday. An öregasszony clad in a black shawl, print dress and apron accosted me. From her crouched position, bent over with age, she looked up at me and began to berate me in Hungarian with a curled fist from which protruded an arthritic finger. Of course, I had no idea of what she was accusing me since my Hungarian consisted of only a few phrase book essentials, like please (kérem) and thank you (köszönöm). The pedestrians that coursed by on the busy street stared at the scene. When they looked at me, I only shrugged (as Hungarian-like as I could). Mercifully, the old granny moved off having relented briefly in her assault. She crossed the street while I headed in the opposite direction. I was relieved but felt guilty at my relief when I looked over my shoulder to see her addressing her harangue at another hapless man. “Not an auspicious beginning to my stay in Hungary,” I thought.

I was wrong. Fortunately, my work spoke for itself. Broken Hungarian was unnecessary. I was encouraged when one of the big names in the field acknowledged the significance of our results and also the typo of an erroneous minus sign in one of his published papers (that we had identified and he had previously corrected, but in an obscure errata). My post-doctoral mentors were pleased, as well, at the reception of the work. They were also delighted when their fears were put to rest at lunch that day. We dined with the Minister of Science for the nation of Hungary who was partially footing the bill for the exchange between the National Science Foundation of the US and his country. The future of the collaboration between Caltech, my academic home, and KFKI, the Hungarian National Institute for Physics hung upon his favorable impression. My Hungarian friend and host fidgeted with his white linen napkin as I told of my experiences over the weekend and my encounter with the old crone. I elaborated on my adventure at the meat market when I had held up five fingers and had tried to ask for öt szelet, five cutlets. The butcher, apparently very proud and protective of his Hungarian tongue, corrected my pronunciation. It seems I had learned to pronounce the difficult Hungarian short umlaut o from a southern Hungarian and those sounds offended his northern ears. I would later hear that I pronounced Hungarian words (since I did not actually speak Hungarian) with a Transdanubian, that is Austrian, accent. I do not think that it was a compliment.

The Butcher’s Friend

My host and my mentors all leaned back in their seats when the Minister remarked through his interpreter (although he spoke excellent English and understood every word I said as his immediate laughter revealed), ”It is clear who will be staying behind after the conference. He is the one who is making friends with the butcher.” We all laughed and relaxed a little. My mentors beamed at me, sensing the approval of this powerful man, when the his excellency patted me on the shoulder and said, ”You remind me of my son. I hope that you will have a productive and pleasant stay in our country.”  Then he lifted his glass for a toast to the collaboration.

It was indeed a grand adventure. Decades later I still remember those days with fondness and gratitude. That scientific paper (tudományos könyv) ultimately appeared in the scientific literature and has been cited many times. By it I began to achieve my childhood dream of becoming an explorer, not of geographical spaces, but of intellectual ones. Over the years, too, I have struggled with pride, wondering if it were unworthy to desire a great name. Then, I recently hear a sermon about Father Abraham and his call that liberated my heart at last.

Abram, as he was first called, heard the Almighty saying, “Go to a land that I will show you. . . . And I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Oh, how I identified with this call! I went to a far land when we sojourned in Hungary, where we dwelled as aliens and strangers. It was there I began to acquire a “great name,” at least among the small community to which I belonged. And the point of this “fame?” I learned finally to become a blessing. Ultimately as a professor, I was able to encourage thousands of students. One of my graduate assistants once even gave me a button that read, “Almost famous,” not quite world renown but important enough to a few. I pray that I have been and will continue to be a blessing to those who trail after me, that I will indeed be “The Matteson” who showed the way and the one that demonstrates that a great name can be earned even by a child sprung from the mud of the swamp of his youth.

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya Lisa (6), and nővére Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

The Matteson clan in Budapest 1978, (left to right) Anya (Mother) Carolyn, kicsi (little) Peter, lánya (daughter) Lisa (6), and nővére (sister) Carrie (almost 7) Photo credit: Sam Matteson

A Dutch Pentecost

John Smyth, ca. 1608 Puritan Separatist and founder Baptist Church Amsterdam Photo credit: Wikipedia

John Smyth, ca. 1608 Puritan Separatist and founder Baptist Church Amsterdam Photo credit: Wikipedia

The world is filled with words, many of which I do not understand. In my European travels both made possible and necessitated by my career as a physicist in the international science community, I often found myself trying to be at least functional even though I definitely was illiterate in the local language and dialect. In one case, in particular, however, I experienced a strange sensation, something like that which the first century Jewish celebrants of Pentecost must have known in the New Testament when they heard the disciples speak, yet understood in their own language.

I was visiting Amsterdam on the weekend before the conference would begin in Eindhoven, up the train track and inland a little over a hundred kilometers. I had a Sunday free and decided that it would be fun to worship at a Baptist church in Amsterdam, since in 1608 John Smyth led a group of English Separatists to the tolerant nation of Holland and out of the reach of the oppression of King James I. I would later visit Bakkerstraat (Baker’s Street) where in the 1600s sat the Bake House where the Mennonite Congregation worshiped and shared their building with the English Separatists. There they also labored, baking hardtack for the sailors of the Dutch East India Company. It was there also that the first Baptist Church in history was founded according to many accounts. I resolved not to allow the chance to escape. Here was a rare opportunity to worship in the birthplace of the Separatist sect which my first American ancestor Henry Matteson would join in Rhode Island less than fifty years later. I felt a personal connection somehow to the history of the place.

A Problem

However, I encountered a big problem when I looked up “Kerken Baptisten” or searched for “Doopgezinde” (i.e. Baptist) in the telephone book in a vain attempt to find a Baptist Church. Apparently there were no “dunker” churches left in the great city of Amsterdam. Yet, as I surmised from the context and a quick check of my pocket dictionary, there was a listing for a “Tabitha,” a home for seniors managed by Dutch Baptists. I had found my opportunity! I deciphered the Dutch script to understand that there was a service at 10:00 am. A few trams stops later I arrived at the tall building and, directed by a sign in the lobby, I proceeded to the “lift” (pronounced “leeft”) and pushed the button for “vloer 10” (floor ten). When I arrived I smiled my most Dutch smile, and repeated the greeting that I had often heard: “Goedemorgen,” trying to sound as Low Country as I could even though it probably came out sounding much more like the German that I had studied in my undergraduate days. I accepted with a functional, if slightly stiff “Dank U,” the song sheet of hymns and choruses. I studied carefully the cipher on the page. I recognized every third word or so a cognate of an English word (even if slightly mangled in the spelling) and another third could have been German. I was relieved when I realized the first hymn, Een Vaste Burcht is Onze God, was Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The service began and I sang lustily along with my Dutch brothers and sisters, pronouncing phonetically the words printed on the page as closely as I could with my slightly defective understanding of Dutch diction. Frequently the English word appeared on the page in synchrony with my inward recitation of the hymn.

What an epiphany! How must it have been to have heard alien words and sounds yet understood them inwardly as one’s own tongue? It was a glorious experience. It was if I were transported back to Jerusalem of the first century and that miraculous Pentecost. But then came the sermon. There were no subtitles, nor prepared text to follow. The spell seemed broken.

The Sermon

The kind-faced pastor took the podium and began speaking. He mentioned “Paul en Silas in Philippi.” Of course it sounded to my ears as if he said “Pah-oul en See-lahss een Feelepee.” Fortunately, I had heard the story. In fact, it was one of my favorites. I settled in to absorb what I could by letting his beautiful musical words flow over me. But he kept using a word that jarred me with its unfamiliarity. He continually said something that sounded like “Khaht.” It is hard to transliterate because the first sound was a deep clearing of the throat unheard of in English. I was distracted for many minutes thinking about what this word could be. Then I remembered seeing the sign that inevitably hung above a bicycle chained to the sign post, “geen rad plaatsen”pronounced “kheen rad plahtzen” and meaning “to be placing a wheel (that is bicycle) [here is] forbidden!”

“Ah-ha! The G in Dutch is that strange guttural sound I hear. And the final d sounds like a t to my ears. So the preacher is speaking of the central character in every Bible story: G-o-d, God,” I shouted inside. “God of course you, domkop!” That is when I began to understand his point. For the last five minutes of the sermon I struggled to put into comprehensible Dutch what I had received: “In problems God is there.” Just as when Paul and Silas saw no way out while they were imprisoned, they sang praise to God anyway. What a blessed message for the elders around me who daily faced hardship and problems. I, at last, decided that I had a sentence that I could share with my “Pentecostal” Pastor to let him know that I had been blessed by his efforts, even if I could not follow every word.

The Final Word

After the service, standing at the door, he smiled and shook hands with all the congregation as they departed to enjoy the post-service coffee and petit-fours. My turn came and he shook my hand enthusiastically as if we were long separated brothers. I touched my chest and said, “Ik been Amerikaans.” He nodded. Then I shared my well-rehearsed line, “In problemen God is er.” I was careful to pronounce the divine appellation as correctly as I could.

The Pastor replied in words that every Christian understands, whether in the Netherlands or the Bayou or the Alps—words I shall never forget. He looked me in the eye and declared with a stout voice: “Amen! Amen! Hallelujah!”

To which I replied then as I still do, “Amen, indeed!”

Bakkerstraat, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the short alley in the early 1600s stood the Bake House where the first Baptist Church was formed by John Smyth. Photo credit: Google maps

Bakkerstraat, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the short alley in the early 1600s stood the Bake House where the first Baptist Church was formed by John Smyth. Photo credit: Google maps

First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

From my earliest years I was curious about the things I saw and heard about. “Why?” was a question that my parents heard all too often from this child. “Why does the sun always come up over the bay and set in the swamp? Why do the seasons come when they do? Where did the dinosaurs come from? How old are the rocks?” I looked for answers everywhere: in the encyclopedia, in library books, in magazines, everywhere—even in the field; and since we were church-going folk, I looked in the Bible for answers to my questions as to how the natural world worked.

I Misunderstood the Bible

The picture I took away from the big black leather-bound family Bible, after sifting through the “thees” and “thous,” was that the sun moved across the sky daily like a “bridegroom going forth in his chariot,” that the earth was like a large circular, but flat, picnic cloth that floated on nothing and that God would on occasion take by the edges and shake out in earthquakes. I also read in the margins that—according to a Bishop Ussher—the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C. That was, to my young mind, inconceivably ancient; even older that my Grandpa, or his elder brother Uncle John A. Moates, the oldest man in the world, according to my reckoning. But I was soon presented with evidence that I had severely underestimated the antiquity of the “Ancient of Days;” I had overlooked His unimaginable patience; and I had discounted God’s supreme cleverness at building mechanical universes. I had misunderstood, it seems. I learned that the sun did not orbit the earth in his daily trip across the sky, as I naively envisioned, but rather it was the earth that revolved, carrying me under the sun; moreover, while the earth and the sun did indeed dance, it is not the sun that gyrates but it is the earth, like a small child, that orbits yearly the grandfather sun.

Later as I read again the beautiful words contained in the Psalms, I understood them this time as descriptive of the same experience I shared with Iron-Age readers and the profound truth that interprets this majestic universe as both a paean and a signpost to the Maker. Thus, when I considered evidence of the incredible antiquity of the physical universe at 13.7 billion years, I did not discount what I read in the Word, but instead came to understand that God is so much more senior that I had appreciated and that while old, the universe is not eternal. Furthermore, when I learned of genes, DNA and the unity of life on this planet, I was humbled. That I shared common ancestors with other primates did not make God seem smaller or less capable to me, but, on the contrary, it was an even more impressive miracle in Natural History that instead of arriving in a “poof” and a cloud of magical dust, events were shepherded in just the right way and at just the right time over eons so that mankind, “Adam” and I came to be, distant relatives to the chimpanzee but very much different, imbued with a spirit, the very spiritual breath of God.

A Humbling Thought

I thought “Who am I to tell the Maker of the universe, of the heavens and the earth, how He should have done it?” I find it all so astonishing that God did not perform a colossal magic trick in bringing the myriad forms of life on this water world, but by patience and clever means intentionally formed and animated all earthly life, even humanity. Perhaps he could have done it more straightforwardly, but the evidence indicates otherwise, and I doubt that He would deceive us by putting false evidence in our path to lead us astray.

Instead, I have concluded that God is just far more subtle than I first thought. He is considerate, as well, to let us in on who He is, speaking to us down the millennia through his spokesmen in words and mental pictures we could understand. But to understand His message clearly we must translate the story, its language, its cultural idiom, its cosmology into words and images that make sense to our child-like minds. When we do that job well we see that the truth about God in the book is richer, more nuanced, more exciting than we thought at first. God is far more than we had initially imagined and is even more worthy of our worship than we anticipated at the outset.

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

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A “Caesar Cipher” side rule that substitutes one letter of cipher text for another letter of plain text. Photo credit: ciphermachines.com/pictures/SlideRule/sliderule.jpg

As a pre-teen I became fascinated by ciphers and codes. The idea that one could transmit a secret English language message by means of a simple substitutionary cipher intrigued me. Indeed, the “Caesar cipher,” in which the alphabet is shifted a fixed number of spaces was great fun to play with; for example, a two space shift replaces C for A, D for B, E for C etc. Thus, the plaintext, “YOUR FATHER LOVES YOU,” became in ciphertext, “AQWTH CVJGT NQXGU AQW,” grouping the encrypted letters in clusters of five. The fun came in trying to break the code without the help of a key.

I, like Ralphie Parker of A Christmas Story, was enthralled by the Ovaltine decoder ring. Unlike Ralphie, however, I was not disappointed by the messages I received. The deciphered text did not urge me to “Drink Ovaltine,” a crass exploitative and inane message. As I grew more mature, I realized that coded messages lay hidden everywhere. In letters of written languages are coded sounds and thoughts. I marveled at the alien scripts of other tongues: Greek, Hebrew and, most strange to me, Chinese ideograms such as Tiān 天, the heavens, that sensibly enough is a modification of the symbol for large: Dà 大 , formed by the addition of a bar at the top. This was a visual code that fascinated me then and still intrigues me today. Thus, I had to acknowledge that other systems of communication, so foreign to my experience, were as valid as my own. And I saw coded text everywhere in other ways.

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

I discovered science early and realized that all around me were puzzles written in code that, with effort and cleverness, we could decypher. My life has led down the path of science to the life of a physicist. Physics is more than a career that I have chosen; it is who I am. I have an innate urge to understand how things work. To my delight, I have found that the universe, large and small, can be decrypted. What a gift to humanity: a comprehensible world! Even as a youth in the swamps of Alabama, I could see and understand the fall of an acorn from an oak or the progress of a ripple on the stream.

Friends and strangers have often asked me with wondering looks how I, as a rational scientist, can be a Christ-follower, a theist. Such queries from others and from myself prompt me to reflection and (typically) to read. Last year, I finally read a work of Blaise Pascal, one of my scientific heroes. La Penseé, “The Thoughts,” are a compilation of this eighteenth century natural philosopher’s metaphysical musings and notes for a treatise he never completed. Among his notes is the fragment in which he speaks of the principal character of the Bible “Dieu est un Dieu caché,” that is, “God is a hidden God,” he remarks. Hidden, like a treasure cached or stored away out of sight, but accessible to the blessed. Following Pascal’s lead, I see that science may decode the cypher of natural phenomenon only to reveal a plaintext in a language unknown to science. Just as the breaking of the infamous Enigma Code used by the Nazis during World War II, required both advanced cryptologic analysis and German language translation, in the same way science may review “facts” about the Kosmos but be inadequate to provide any sense of the meaning hidden therein. Yet, it seems to me that the meaning of it all is of primary importance.

Indeed, many scientist observe the elegant universe with its exquisite laws and intricate workings and see no meaning or purpose in it, at all. I, on the other hand, see the wonders around us and my heart rejoices. Viewed through the lens of the gospel, the night sky speaks to me and my soul sings with the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork./Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge./There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3)

My heart hurts for those who, like my color blind friends who cannot appreciate the beauty of the sunset, seem to be blind to the riches of God toward us. I suspect that this is what the doctrine of election in Christian theology “looks like” in reality: those who are not graced by God, “just don’t get it.” In response I can only offer three suggestions: (1) the testimony of my life proclaims that all creation recounts the glory of a Creator who loves us and desires fellowship with us, rebellious though we have been; (2) the witness of giants in the faith and culture throughout the ages declares His existence, the evidence of men who like Pascal faced an uncertain future as do we and lived triumphantly; (3) the ultimate Rosetta Stone of the Kosmos: the collections of little books known as the Holy Bible provides a reliable lexicon for an alien tongue exposed in the plaintext of decrypted science.

Thus, in fact, we have a grand and holy decoder ring at our ready disposal to help us make sense of the meaning of it all. A helpful hint to the meaning of the decrypted message? A key to unlocking the true meaning of it all? “God so loved the Kosmos that he gave his only begotten that whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life.”

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀, All the heavens天recount God’s神dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1) Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀,
All the heavens 天 recount God’s 神 dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1)
Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg